Performance Diary: Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer at Town Hall and GRASSES OF A THOUSAND COLOURS

November 27, 2013

gaiman palmer
11.23.13 –
Andy is a huge fan of writer Neil Gaiman and singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer, so he bought tickets for their double-bill at Town Hall as soon as they went on sale. The two met when Palmer, formerly half of the Dresden Dolls, asked him to write material for her solo album Who Killed Amanda Palmer? Before long, they were a pair and are now married. In this charming, chatty, intimate concert, we heard a little about their courtship. Early on, in a conversation about the dearth of contemporary torch songs, Gaiman announced that he’d written one called “I Google You.” He sang it for her, twice, and a few days later she sent him a link to a YouTube video of her singing it in concert in San Francisco. For the Town Hall gig, they opened the evening singing a duet on “Making Whoopee,” paving the way for considerably more singing from Gaiman than I expected (and less reading of his work than I would have liked). He’s a Brit and characteristically modest; she’s an American, more brash and with, let’s say, a bigger personality. Weirdly, she often reminds me of my friend, the San Francisco-based performance artist Keith Hennessy (weirder still, I think it’s the powerful legs). Saturday night also happened to coincide with the premiere of the 50th anniversary broadcast of Doctor Who, the long-running British TV show for which Gaiman has contributed a few episodes, so there was a fair amount of fanboy-geekery running between the stage and the audience. The inevitable special guests included Aussie burlesque chanteuse Meow Meow backed by Lance Horne (on loan from La Soiree downtown) and Arthur Darvill, who plays a minor character on Doctor Who and ran over after finishing his show as the lead in Once.

11.25.13 – I can’t pretend I understand what Wally Shawn’s play Grasses of a Thousand Colours is about. When I flew to London to see the world premiere at the Royal Court, I managed a pretty succinct summary of the play in my Performance Diary:

grasses-of-a-thousand-colors-86857
It’s a big, long, crazy, intense three-act fantasia about a famous scientist overwhelmingly fixated on his penis and his relationships with three different women (his wife, his mistress, and his girlfriend, named for three shades of red: Cerise, Robin, and Rose) and a mysterious shape-shifting cat named Blanche who may be the shamanic double of Cerise and/or possibly God. It’s set in some apocalyptic near-future when some initially successful experiments with increasing the world’s food supply have gone dreadfully wrong. And the stories that Ben and his playmates tell – addressing the audience directly, as is usually the case in Shawn’s plays – teem with images of animals. Eating and fucking. Dick and Pussy. Humans and animals. Andre Gregory’s staging unfolds on a simple stationary set – a long white sofa and two standing lamps – and it interpolates strange little bursts of film that surrealistically mangle the sense of time and place. Wally himself plays the main character, known as Ben or the memoirist, who says things like, “When I was a boy, parents never masturbated in front of their children. In fact, children never masturbated in front of their parents! And God knows children would never make out with their parents or fuck them, ever, because that would have been seen as utterly shocking…So, you see,  for me, the way things are now still seems astonishing – I mean, the fact that people talk about their penises and vaginas in public, at dinner parties, in magazines, and newspapers. I can’t get over it. Ha ha ha!”…

whitecat1
In an endnote to the published text, Shawn mentions that certain elements from the play derive from a 17th century story by Madame D’Aulnoy called “The White Cat.” I don’t know that story, but I will look it up as I continue thinking about this strange strange play, which is a bizarre combination of fairy tale, fever dream, and The Story of O. It’s quite unlike any other play I’ve seen before, except that it bears a distinct family resemblance to other wild, linguistically pungent, sexually transgressive, disturbing and disorienting Wally Shawn plays (Our Late Night, Marie and Bruce, The Music Teacher, The Designated Mourner).

Besides Wally in the central role, the London cast included Miranda Richardson as Cerise, Jennifer Tilly as Robin, and Emily Cass McDonnell as Rose. Seeing it again at the Public Theater, with Julie Hagerty in the Miranda Richardson role, I found that I had no particular advantage the second time around, nor did I find it especially enjoyable to sit through again. (I was somewhat affected by sitting next to Andy, who is a game theatergoer in general but found the play an ordeal.) I admired Andre Gregory’s production less than I did the first time around – for one thing, Jennifer Tilly’s performance has coarsened over time to a one-note bray.  I had mixed feelings about Julie Hagerty, who was definitely wispier than Miranda Richardson. I enjoyed most the freaky dream-like film sequences in which she appeared as “Blanche,” although my strongest takeaway is her deliver of the line, “Last night, as I was urinating on him…”

Clearly there are layers and layers of mischief going on throughout the production, signaled by tiny gestures of sound and movement – every time Ben (the main character) takes a sip of the green potion on his lecturer’s podium, his energy immediately shifts, never predictably. As I explained to Andy and my friends Melissa and Maribel, as we walked to dinner at Noho Star afterwards, my best guess about  the play is that it represents a particular literary phenomenon – Shawn, an excellent brainy and theatrically savvy playwright, has given himself the challenge to follow his imagination, his psyche, his dreams in creating a work that relentlessly and categorically defies the viewer’s attempt to interpret it as any kind of coherent narrative reducible to meaning. Like the craziest, scariest fables and fairy tales ever written, it is a story that exists in relation only to itself.

Oh, one major difference in the production at the Public Theater was that instead of a second intermission, after two and a half hours, we got a five-minute pause, during which an insane array of snacks was handed out in the foyer adjacent to the Shiva Theater – a paper cup containing 5 almonds, a hard-boiled egg, a Lindt chocolate ball, and a silver cup containing a swallow of cranberry juice – served by a chubby whiskered lad wearing a cat mask.

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